THE DISTURBING CAVE OF THE NYMPHS
A large group of burly Russian yachties have just walked through the centre of the port here. Language apart, you can tell they are Russians, partly from their stature in the case of the big and bullish men, and in addition the same guys always wear fearlessly colourful t-shirts, often flaming crimson, combined with oddly skittish, even childish white shorts. My assumption is they are not really sure whether they are grown-ups or still kids, so they decide it’s safest to be both. Also they cling together defensively and vigilantly more than all other foreigners, as if still affected by the good old Soviet days, when best to say nothing, do nothing, and want nothing, but to be left in peace. They are conspicuously a strange mixture of thrifty and spendthrift. To economise, they often eat all their meals on the yacht, but then at say 10 o’clock at night, hurtle en masse into the port souvenir shop and come out laden with umpteen bags, and obviously have spent what would have got them grilled lobster and the finest wines for their 3 days stay, before rattling off to Serifos or Sifnos or Syros.
But one Russian guy of about 35, made a serious mistake today. He walked boldly into the Glaros, and proceeded to the Gents, as if thinking it were a public convenience. Marianna caught him just in time, and told him assertively in English, he must buy something if he wanted to use the facilities. He pretended to push her away (if he had actually done so, she would have blithely and expertly eviscerated him on the spot), scowled and snorted something rude in Russian, then stomped off. I’m sure if he had asked politely instead of blustering in, she’d have let him piss away till the Russian cows come home, so to speak. Marianna’s sister Chrisoula then started reminiscing about two Frenchwomen last year who came into the Glaros, guiltlessly ate the tiropittas they’d just bought from the bakery, then aristocratically yawned and used the bogs, later swanning off with about a mile of both toilet paper and kitchen paper, likely because they had used it all up on their luxury hired yacht. The French tourists, it is widely agreed on Greek islands, are the worst and rudest malefactors in Greece, and some still exercise a robustly colonial attitude towards those lazy, olive-coloured, Mediterranean and dear me, oh so childlike and improvident and debt-ridden Greeks of 2015.
It works both ways of course. Almost exactly 20 years ago in May of 1995, Annie, Ione and I were in the beautiful Ionian Isle of Ithaki, famed for its Homeric connections, staying in its fine little port and Hora, Vathi. We had started off in neighbouring Kefalonia which was likeable but candidly speaking, nothing startling, the only startling thing being in the pretty village of Assos (also the name of Greece’s best known brand of cigarette) where a British woman in the same cafe had leant backwards in her chair and accidentally hurt a cat. The cat had responded by sinking its claws very deep into her leg, and made such an ugly mess she had to seek immediate medical assistance some 20 miles up north. The doctor charged her a bomb, she told us later, and it would all come out of her insurance, but in the meantime her credit card took the punishment, and she now spent all her time looking for vicious animals skulking beneath her chair. So much for the idyll that was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The same day a girl assistant in a fruit shop in the capital Argostoli, tried to overcharge me massively. When I told her in Greek I wasn’t pleased, instead of being contrite, she just looked defiant and even smirked at me and my far too polite indignation.
Ithaki is a lot smaller than Kefalonia, and Vathi is a lot prettier than Argostoli, which is all featureless breeze blocks constructed after the terrible earthquake of 1953. We secured excellent and bargain Vathi rooms a twenty minute walk out of town, and because the place was empty, the kind young woman gave us two rooms for the price of one. That meant that Ione aged not quite 6, had her own massive fridge, which she promptly filled with ten Chupa lollipops and nothing else. She had other more important things to think of, as apropos verbs like ‘filled’ starting with the letter ‘f’, she had just fallen in love with our domatia owner’s son. The Ionian Adonis in question was called Spiros, and was 10 years old, and all specs and sober-looking, but that didn’t stop her passionate young heart. She worshipped him from afar, and at one stage approached him with not one, but two Chupa lollipops, which thank God he didn’t refuse.
You are wondering what has happened to the East Europeans, but don’t worry I am getting there. Because it was May, it was classed as low season = winter by the restaurants and our domatia. As a result, quite a lot of tavernas were either closed, or, not bothering with any menu, serving only one or two standard dishes. An exception was the excellent one we went to almost every night, and the owner of maybe 60, took an obvious shine to us. He warned Ione off playing with the famished cats under the table, as they could give her a nasty scratch, thinking that her playful hand had food inside. He gave us free wine and free ouzos at the end of every meal, and then sat down and told us what he did in the winter. He was open here May to October, and then did nothing but please himself hedonistically for the next 6 months. So he went fishing in his boat and hunting on his motorbike, and essentially lived off what he made in only 2 frantic weeks in August. The rest of the time including now, was pin money. Then distracted, he pointed without charity at some tourists walking past, who looked somehow different from the rest. He told us they were from the Czech Republic, and sneered that perhaps because it was only 6 years since Communism collapsed, they had no money to speak of. Whenever they sat down in his taverna, they frugally shared not many things between a lot of them, and this of course for him was irritating. He looked at us with contrary approval, as we had ordered enough for 6 people, being unrepentant hogs. Tomato keftedes, chickpea keftedes, tzatziki, gigantes which Ione loved, Greek salad which Annie really loved, especially the succulent Ithaki tomatoes. That was just our copious starters, and then there was all the rest. Moussaka for Annie and melanouri, sea bream, for me, which Ione instantly purloined massive quantities of, not for herself as she has always loathed fish, but for her feline chums feasting luxuriously below. She actually took a handsome portion off my fork en route to my salivating gob, and threw it down for the delirious cats. If I deviously sneaked too much of my dinner for myself, she looked at me reproachfully for stinting her mewing pals below. She then turned to Annie, and asked her what time did she think handsome old Spiros went to bed, and could we maybe drop everything and rush back there immediately, our supper only half digested, to wish him a good night? She had 8 more splendid Chupas left to give him, in her otherwise empty fridge.
That’s enough of East Europeans in Greece for now. I have something altogether more haunting to tell you. However I will delay the tension for a few minutes, by saying we visited the two peculiar little Ithaki communities called Exoghi and Anoghi. The former is just a tiny far-flung hamlet full of beautiful holiday homes, but it is at an extreme elevation, and to get between some of the houses, you take a short cut of some severely inclined wooden steps. It being good old blind roulette Greece of 20 years ago, there was no such luxury as a handrail, but instead a lethal fifty foot fall on either side. It gave me a terrifying vertigo waltzing up it, but 5 year-old Ione shot up wholly fearless while I shit several kittens, and insisted that she hold my hand. She counter-insisted she would not, and I turned to Annie for counselling, but it was all academic at this stage, as she had reached the top and safety, whereas I was still struggling and tottering like a 44 year-old geriatric, and a psychogeriatric at that.
Anoghi was a lot less challenging, and an old-fashioned village in its own right. To prove it, it had a travelling van trying to sell rugs to bored-looking old women, and it also had a proper little village school. It was 3pm so the kids were back home, but we peeked inside from one window, and then moving to another, stood startled for a second at the sight of a stuffed vulture. I was confident it was a vulture, as prominent in both Parsee Bombay and cowboy movies, and my Greek dictionary confirmed the meaning on the handwritten caption of ornia. One wondered why a taxidermist’s tussle with a bloody old vulture, had won it pride of place in the window of a tiny Ionian island school. Maybe it wasn’t intended for the kids’ edification, but for the serendipity bemusement of gawking tourists like ourselves. On the other hand, some questions simply have no answers, and to realise and accept as much, can take an entire lifetime of unnecessary frustration and endless and fruitless misinterpretation.
The next morning we decided to visit Marmarospili or the Cave of the Nymphs, only three quarters of an hour’s walk from Dhexa beach near Vathi. With its proximity to the beach, and supposedly a crucial part of the Homeric epic, it was thought to be where Odysseus had hidden his gift from King Alcinous. In those palmy days of 20 years ago, and being only 5, Ione would happily agree to do anything, or go anywhere on one of our foreign holidays. By contrast, only a year later, at her stringent direction, it could only be a sandy Greek cove, or if in Portugal and inland, either a praia fluvial river beach, or some madhouse civic swimming pool in Chaves or Braga or Ponte de Lima. But she happily led the way today, and without much fuss we found the cave, and it being May, there was no one there but ourselves.
Till then, my experience of caves had only been the lateral kind one walks into, but in this case you went down into it, via a ladder reaching a depth of about fifteen yards. The three of us moved down and down the very rickety steps, and Ione did not bat an eyelid, nor did Annie, and nor did I at the very start. It was only when at the bottom, I looked up at the sky above us, at the sheer whiteness occluded and delimited by the top of our decidedly deep cave, that I began, how can I put it, to feel just a little, and then a lot, peculiarly strange…
It all happened within a few seconds, and it was emphatically my own private experience only. Ione was moderately content wandering down below, though eventually bored by the cave’s limitations. Annie likewise had no sense of foreboding or anything else unpleasant, from first to last. In my case I had the imminent and very vivid and very worrying sensation, that I was about to turn into something altogether different from my normal and comfortable self. Most aptly, as I looked at the cave and the sky, and vividly saw a kind of invisible but nebulous smoke palpating up there, I felt as if I were in a strange version of Pasolini’s brilliant but frequently very disturbing film Medea. That gives a lame interpretation though, as if I were leisurely telling myself, that this was all very like some movie which I had seen in the Moulin Rouge cinema in Headington in Oxford in 1970. Far from it. Rather it felt as if Pasolini’s epic Medea was not just a film, but the absolute breathing and respiring reality of a thing called Greek myth, which was not in fact a myth, but a towering and perennial reality, into which I was about to fall and perhaps terrifyingly vanish from the world of 1995, and forever. So I was not therefore in a film with a name and a date and a director, in the sense of something confined to a time and place, but rather the whole Greek classical world was self-evidently a kind of perfected Pasolinian movie, with absolute and, in this case, very frightening fidelity. I need to repeat that it was the sight of the white and snaking sky above, with an invisible smoke, and perhaps also an invisible and literal and maybe living and tangibly fearful snake, that was seriously disturbing me, and making me feel as if I were in a transitional state from which I might never return, neither as a man nor a husband nor a father.
What the bloody hell to do? I made some inaudible excuse to both my wife and daughter, and shot back up the steps of the ladder. Annie didn’t even notice my panic, and it was only on the walk back I carefully told her what had happened. She listened very intently, believed every word, and said it did not surprise her one iota. She had found Medea herself unwatchable in its intensity and violence, and the same went for Fellini’s savage work of genius Satyricon, which we had gone to see together at the Penultimate Picture Palace in Oxford on my 31st birthday on October the 18th, 1981. However she wished in a way she had had my remarkable experience, and wondered for the rest of the day, as indeed did I, why exactly she had not.